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We Don't Need To "Fix" Our Children's Behavior

When we see our children as growing and evolving rather than needing to be trained, we realize that nothing has to be "fixed".

For the past three weeks, I have been fluctuating between emotional overwhelm, tears, concern, and desperation for a mental health break. There has been a shift within my four-year-old son … an upheaval from his normal temperament. While he has always been a fierce and passionate little life warrior, he has recently spiraled into literal emotional puddles on the ground, hitting in the face of his angerstiff-arming his two-year-old brother, and flat-out telling me “I am not going to do that.” 

While I know that these are signs of normal child development, the frequency and intensity in which these behaviors are occurring have left me questioning all things, especially myself as his mom. My narratives go a little something like this: 

1) What have I done wrong? I mean surely I must be missing the mark on something  … somewhere … somehow, otherwise he would not be struggling like he is. 

2) What am I missing? Is something going on at school … Is he not getting enough sleep? …  Am I not giving him enough attention and time? 

I felt out of control, somewhat like a puppet on a string, as I chased my tail to figure out my son. I exasperated myself looking for solutions to his misbehavior and emotional outbursts. My fear and puzzlement put me in a parental haze, and in the fog, I lost sight of my son. I saw his behavior as something to fix, which by default made my child a problem to solve. 

Despite my best intentions, my son and I entered this negative feedback loop. And the more I became invested in the outcome of “figuring him out” and “fixing his behavior”, the more he dug in, acted out, and power struggled. 

As parents, we often write stories in our minds about who we are, if we are doing good enough and how it “should” be done. And we also write stories about who we think our kids are, who they “should” be, and about their behaviors.

I was so busy writing stories about what could be going on with my son, in what ways I may be failing, and projecting visions of what his future might look like if we don’t get through this, that I was missing what was right in front of me … the joy and wonder that is my son. I was so hyper-focused on “the problem” that it was sucking the pleasure out of parenting. 

After pulling into the driveway after school one day, I sat there with the car in idle while my boys sat asleep in their car seats, and I lingered there. It felt sort of like a mini-vacation. I took a few breaths, and then I turned around to see my boys’ sleeping faces. It was there in my car - in the stillness - that I felt something reset inside of me. 

Do you remember that feeling you got when you held your baby for the first time? That overwhelming honor that this beautifully packaged soul was yours? It felt kind of like that for me. And for the first time in a long time, I was able to see my son for the love that he is, even in the face of his challenging behavior. Slowly my guilt, worry, and frustration melted. 

If our goal is not to control our child’s behavior then what do we do as parents?

From Fixing To Guiding Behavior

  • Step one: Focus on where your power lies. 
Part of me felt so helpless, and the more I felt out of control, the more I clung to a sense of it - and the more I grasped for answers. In recognizing the energy of my thoughts, feelings, and actions, I nurtured and expanded my own emotional capacity. I was able to find my calm so that I could share it with my child and co-regulate - aka work through whatever was happening together, and without my judgments, fears, and biases weighing in.
  • Step two: Recognize the unmet need. 
We all have needs, and common behavioral and emotional derailers for children are if they are hungry, tired, or off routine. Other things that can influence their disposition is transitioning from a preferred task to an unpreferred one, feeling body sensations - aka emotions - and not knowing what to do with those impulses, wanting to feel seen and connected, being over/understimulated, and also the desire to be a powerful player in their day-to-day. When I stepped into my child’s world to look at his needs from his lens, I was able to identify which buckets were low and help fill them.
  • Step three: Adapt the environment.
It is not the child that needs to change, but rather the environment. Re-evaluating my expectations of my child’s developmental capacity allowed me to come into situations with more empathy, and as such, my focus shifted from fixing his behavior to helping him thrive with the adaptation of his surroundings. This includes using timers to help with transitions, creating a physical barrier between him and his brother during contentious moments, and using our family's Calming Corner to help with emotional education and regulation. 
  • Step four: Teach lacking skills. 
At age four, my son’s brain is early in development for skills of impulse control, emotional regulation, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and empathy. When I saw his behavior as communication, my questions became “What skill is my son lacking here and how can I best teach him this skill?” In giving him situational training wheels, my son is making new neural connections that wire his brain for social and emotional regulation and executive functioning.

Instead of changing my son, my intent became to help guide him. And that starts first with meeting him where he is right now. It doesn’t matter where he was last week or where he may be in 15 years, the only moment we truly have is the one we are standing in. 


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